Today’s skilled worker shortage and the 90’s technology “Brain Drain”: What can we learn from Nortel?

Canada, one of the most educated populations in the world, is yet again experiencing a skills shortage spanning junior developers to specialized cybersecurity practitioners and senior executives. According to employee surveys, the problem has been compounded by employers not providing adequate training, and externally academia struggles to educate students due to high competition from industry for qualified instructors in a rapidly changing field.

A recent report by Deloitte stated that Canada’s demand for cybersecurity skills is now climbing seven per cent a year, with over 5,000 cybersecurity roles to fill between 2018 and 2021. Globally, the workforce gap is expected to stand at 1.8 million by 2022, slowing global technological innovation by as much as $3 trillion (USD) in lost economic value by 2020.

Steadily increasing over the decades, the demand for technology workers was not unexpected but somewhere between the 90s and now we dropped the ball in maintaining alignment of education, government, skills and the importance of corporate culture. Some of us may recall the “brain drain” of the 1990s, when scores of Canadian technology, engineering and science employees were drawn to other countries offering high paying professional opportunities.

Back then, it was not uncommon for US firms to aggressively recruit Canadian talent with six-figure salaries, stock options, paid education, relocation and accommodations and luxury company cars. On top of that, “flex-time” and relaxed office environments were standard, often outfitted with pinball machines, coffee bars and beer kegs. Canada has already seen a steady increase in the immigration of skilled workers to the US, most of these temporary.

To manage the impact, Canada’s technology leaders – Mitel, Alcatel, Nortel, Entrust and others – fostered relationships with universities, acquired resources from less-developed markets and utilized outsourcing as a stop-gap solution. But they also did something else very innovative to retain talent, setting them apart from other sectors. The technology sector turned inward and developed cutting-edge, people-centric recruitment and reward/recognition programs and invested heavily in employees, building their brand as an employer.

Far beyond expensive Aeron chairs, “pop-can” hoteling pods with a LAN drop, whiteboard and reclining “sleep” space. In the 90s, Nortel was one corporation that led the way in creating dynamic workspaces in its many expansions, retrofits, and renovations. Enlisting designers, like HOK Architects out of Houston, they developed functional, human-inspired spaces that enabled teaming, high productivity and work-life balance for highly valued employees.

In fact, nearly everything about Nortel’s culture reflected the importance of people from their onboarding processes to concierge-style employee services, both dedicated to getting and keeping top talent “up and running” by reducing bureaucracy. Nortel relied on excellence and best practices that were devised by other global leaders in productivity and instituted employee and service quality programs like Six Sigma, TQM, Baldridge and Meyers-Briggs – employees were engaged, consulted and compensated.

For me, Nortel was not only a very cool place to work but the foundation of my career; as a professional, I was effectively raised there. Joining Nortel in 1994, with little education but a lot of promise, I started at $64,000 a year. Sometimes I wore flip-flops and concert t-shirts to work, sometimes I wore suits. When I wasn’t in my open-office space in Lab 3, I was at the Nortel gym or with collaborating colleagues on a couch in Lab 5; the team environment extending well beyond Nortel’s walls. There was no micro-managing, no time clock and I was expected to manage my time, workload and, more importantly, to be creative and to keep learning.

Through a well thought out balance of salary, learning and development, recognition and dynamic culture, employees were a crucial part of Nortel’s success – and they were treated that way. Moreover, Nortel’s investment in employees brought about a loyalty that strengthened every aspect of Nortel’s offering.

One of the most unique approaches in fostering employee retention was seen in the $46 million renovation to Nortel’s Brampton headquarters – also known as The City. An old factory that was transformed into a state-of-the-art facility, it was designed to reflect Nortel’s work-life balance mantra. The City was vibrant and alive and housed essential, daily services for employees: a dry cleaner, a bank, exceptional food courts, rain-forest atriums and in-office massage therapists in a stunning architectural concept that made you want to work late.

David Dunn, whom I was lucky enough to work with before moving to Information Systems, led Brampton’s vision and summed it up as “align[ing] the factory’s reinvention with the company’s reinvention – with our core values.” What an amazing concept. And it worked. The City’s calming colours in rest areas and vibrant ones in brainstorming areas underscored Nortel’s acuity for the creating space for complex humans and their comforts.

Prayer rooms and chapels reflected Nortel’s diverse workforce and its progressive philosophy gave employees freedom and empowerment in exchange high-productivity and commitment. The City, like other Nortel sites, was infused with a ‘pride of place’ through employee engagement and contribution. Exemplifying this, was the Cybershop that included a $10,000 virtual-reality headset that provided visitors an interactive tour of Nortel’s million-page intranet and showcasing Nortel’s latest products. When we assembled for Town Halls, led by CEO John Roth – video-streamed to all locations – you could feel the pride; we were an important and valued contributor to something huge.

Although, all of this didn’t make Nortel immune to the “brain drain”. Many factors, such as massive public sector layoffs, exponential growth in the technology sector and demand for skills, played an eventual role in the high attrition in Canadian technology. During the Dot-Com Boom, no matter how loyal and dedicated, Canadian firms struggled to compete with the sexiness of US firms and the doubled – if not tripled – salaries.

In my case, and many others, Nortel’s philosophy made me work harder, made me more dedicated and made me stay longer. The firms who weathered the “brain drain” better were focused on employees as a core asset, akin to their intellectual property. As Maslow theorized, money motivates for a limited period until Herzberg’s hygienes cease to meet the expected baseline – or until another firm offers you longer term, more lucrative compensation and the cycle continues.

In recent CATA Alliance op-ed by Robert Furtado, the case for corporate culture and employee investment was made through learning, citing a PWC study that showed millennials rank training and development as the most valuable benefit an employer can provide. The onus was also put on corporations – they must understand, identify and strategically plan for the skills necessary for advancement from five to fifteen years into the future.

Elements essential to succeeding in the changing labour market were “corporate learning programs driven by public- and private-sector collaborations, modular programs focused on in-demand skills in continuing studies departments at colleges and universities, and government-supported strategies that arm a wider group of Canadians with the digital skills”.

Getting to these requires more than clarity of corporate objectives – it requires objectives-setting with employees, converging corporate and employee development goals.

If we can learn anything from Nortel in how to approach the skills shortage, it may be that finding and acquiring the right skills is only a small part of the formula – creating corporate cultures and fostering employee needs and career development that enriches work and intrinsic value have proven to be imperative to retaining and growing talent.

While cooperative partnerships between academia, government and corporations are important in addressing the skills shortage, short and long-term investments in employees will keep it at bay. In other words, treat human assets like humans.

The Deloitte report put it succinctly: “… Canadian businesses, educational institutions and governments that look at the cyber talent shortage through a human-centric lens and take bold and deliberate steps to overcome the challenges will push ahead of their peers”.

If you don’t, as Nortel’s competitors witnessed, someone else will.

Author: Valarie Findlay

Valarie Findlay is an American Society for Evidenced-Based Policing member and a research fellow for the Police Foundation (USA) with two decades of senior-level expertise in cybersecurity and policing initiatives. She has worked extensively on federal cyber initiatives and is a member of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police eCrimes Cyber Council and AFCEA DC. She has a Masters in Sociology and a Masters in Terrorism Studies with her dissertation addressing the impacts of terrorism on law enforcement in Western Nations.

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